Richard Jonathan

Richard Jonathan is the author of the literary novel Mara, Marietta: A Love Story in 77 Bedrooms

Augustus John, 1909 | Luisa Casati, 1912, Adolf de Meyer


In this post, the first in an intended series on the art of the portrait, I discuss Augustus John’s second 1919 portrait of the Marchesa Casati. I consider the artist, the model, and the relationship between them, with a view to understanding what makes the painting one of the very finest of all portraits. As a lead-in to the essay, I will have recourse to the Velvet Underground’s ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, while towards the end, using comparison and contrast in a bid to enrich the discussion, I will propose a brief examination of John Singer Sargent’s Madame X. All the facts I present are from well-documented sources (listed in the footnotes); all interpretations are my own. The essay, following this introduction, constitutes Part 2 of the post. In Part 3, I present an extract from Michael Holroyd’s biography of Augustus John in which he discusses, precisely, John’s 1919 portrait of Casati. In Part 4, I take a detour via Fellini’s Casanova to offer a certain perspective on the life of Luisa Casati. Finally, in a coda, I offer a personal appreciation of Augustus John, the man and the artist.

Augustus John, 1909 | The Marchesa Casati, 1913


Lou Reed | The Velvet Underground

And what costume shall the poor girl wear
To all tomorrow’s parties
A hand-me-down dress from who knows where
To all tomorrow’s parties
And where will she go, and what shall she do
When midnight comes around
She’ll turn once more to Sunday’s clown and cry behind the door


And what costume shall the poor girl wear
To all tomorrow’s parties
Why silks and linens of yesterday’s gowns
To all tomorrow’s parties
And what will she do with Thursday’s rags
When Monday comes around
She’ll turn once more to Sunday’s clown and cry behind the door


And what costume shall the poor girl wear
To all tomorrow’s parties
For Thursday’s child is Sunday’s clown
For whom none will go mourning
A blackened shroud, a hand-me-down gown
Of rags and silks: a costume
Fit for one who sits and cries for all tomorrow’s parties

The Velvet Underground & Nico | Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, Gown, 1986

Luisa Casati lived for ‘all tomorrow’s parties’, but she was anything but a ‘poor girl’: neither materially, for she inherited a large fortune, nor psychologically, for even when indigent, she never lost her dignity. Scot Ryersson and Michael Yaccarino have written the authoritative biography* of the Marchesa, but despite the depth of their research and their insightfulness, Luisa, as a person, remains elusive. That she was a highly narcissistic exhibitionist is a well-established fact, but did she ever, for example, experience herself as a ‘Sunday clown’ and ‘cry behind the door’? In other words, beyond the succession of parties, the endless refurbishment of residences, the costumes commissioned and the ones she designed herself—beyond the actress working hard to become a ‘living work of art’—who was she when no-one was watching? The genius of Augustus John’s second 1919 portrait of the Marchesa Casati lies, I contend, in the fact that it gives us, simultaneously, a vision of both Luisa the actress (being watched) and Luisa the person (no-one watching); the one vying for dominance over the other, generating a tension that makes the painting, at once timeless and contemporary, scintillate.


* Scott D. Ryersson & Michael Orlando Yaccarino, Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati: The Ultimate Edition (University of Minnesota Press, 2004)

Augustus John, The Marchesa Casati, 1919

Look at the portrait. I imagine it’s Luisa’s eyes that first grab you. Do you see how they mingle defiance and vulnerability, self-possessive pride and a touch of humility? Do you see how the person emerges from the actress? This multi-dimensionality, this evocation of the heart, mind, or soul through a rendering of the body, this calling forth and bringing into being the invisible via the visible, lies, of course, at the very heart of all great portraiture. How does Augustus John achieve it? It is the man’s response to the woman—before the artist’s response to the model—that, I believe, kicks the portrait into greatness, making technique subservient to a certain quality of interpersonal relation.

Augustus John, The Marchesa Casati, 1919 (detail)

Augustus John and Luisa Casati were lovers. A brief affair, nothing out of the ordinary for either of them. And yet, from that physical intimacy, experienced shortly after they’d first met in February 1919, a lifelong friendship developed. Artist and model were fellow outsiders, each in their own way larger than life. The difference between them, in this regard, is that Augustus was always lucid about his ‘larger-than-lifeness’, able to distance himself from it with mocking irony and re-center himself as an artist on a journey, while Luisa, for her part, never seemed able to step out of her self-ascription as a vehicle for adornment and dazzle, ‘malice and extravagance’, let alone re-center herself. The encounter between artist and model, then, is an encounter between ‘partners in crime’, with the artist at once complicit with and distant from his model. Indeed, both had a reputation for flamboyance (thus the complicity), while he, unlike her, was able to re-center himself beyond that reputation (thus the distance). My contention, then, is that it was this co-existence of complicity and distance that enabled Luisa to offer Augustus the gift of both her ‘defiance and vulnerability’, both her ‘self-possessive pride and touch of humility’ that, as I’ve asserted, accounts for the genius of the portrait. Now, having suggested how the relationship between the man and the woman favoured the expression and reception of Luisa’s ambiguity, let us consider just how the artist captured his model’s arresting duality. How, indeed, did the painter succeed in making ‘a perfect blend’, as Michael Holroyd put it, ‘of romanticism and irony’*?


* Michael Holroyd, Augustus John: The New Biography (London: Head of Zeus, 2015)

Augustus John, 1902 | The Marchesa Casati, 1905

I call face that which in the other regards me, reminding me, from behind the countenance he puts on in his portrait, of his abandonment, his defenselessness, and his mortality, and his appeal to my ancient responsibility, as if he were unique in the world, beloved.


Emmanuel Levinas in Jill Robbins, ed., Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas (2001, Stanford University Press) 204


Against an unreal landscape of forest, mountain and cloud, the face comes forth in its naked reality; against a vague background of milky verdigris, the face asserts itself. The only element of the portrait clearly defined and in focus, the face, at once expression and appeal, is more than a plastic form: it is an exposure to death. That, dear reader, is but a philosophical way of saying that in clearly defining the face and leaving the rest of the painting vague, Augustus chose to highlight, in his portrait of Luisa, the person over the pose, the vulnerability over the vanity. He chose to respond to her appeal to his ‘ancient responsibility’; he chose to paint her, she who loved no-one but herself, as if she were ‘beloved’. As her biographers aptly put it, ‘in its refreshingly unadorned representation, John’s work may indeed reveal the essence of a woman deliberately obscured by her own flamboyance’.*


* Scott D. Ryersson & Michael Orlando Yaccarino, Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati: The Ultimate Edition (University of Minnesota Press, 2004) 115

Female Skull, Victoria & Albert Museum | Léon Bakst, La Marquise Casati, 1912

Although painted in a studio, the portrait—except for the face—has the characteristics of plein air painting: ‘fast’ brush strokes, a ‘sketchy’ quality, the suggestion of something unfinished: ‘the crack that lets in the light’. Indeed, there is a probing liveliness to the painting, a vital spontaneity, that the face absorbs into itself and, as it were, ‘pauses’ and refines: ‘The directness of death is the face of the other because the face is being looked on by death’.* Augustus endows Luisa not with the pretension of staring death down, but rather with the defiant grin of one who tells the grim reaper, ‘You’ll get me, I know, but the life that is mine to live, I live it on my terms’. As for colour, the kohl-rimmed eyes, the red lips, the flaming orange of the hair all serve to clothe the face that the direct stare strives to strip naked: once again we find the tension that animates the painting, that endows it with spirit and breath.


* Emmanuel Levinas in Jill Robbins, ed., Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas (2001, Stanford University Press) 135

Augustus John, The Marchesa Casati, 1919 (detail) | Augustus John, Self-Portrait, 1901

To complement our study of The Marchesa Casati, let us now compare and contrast it with two other portraits by Augustus John. First, Lady Ottoline Morrell, painted in 1919, the same year as The Marchesa Casati. In this portrait, we note, firstly, that the face, unlike in the Casati portrait, is given no more definition than the ‘sketchiness’ of the rest of the painting. Secondly, we observe that the torso is angled a little more toward the spectator than it is in the Casati, but the head less so. As a result, Lady Ottoline meets our gaze in a more oblique fashion. These choices show that Augustus was not motivated to ‘demystify’ Ottoline (as he was with Luisa, where he loved the person more than the persona), but nevertheless offered an interpretation of her self-presentation that is highly individualized. Yes, as with Luisa, Augustus and Ottoline were lovers, but unlike Luisa, Ottoline had wanted more than Augustus was prepared to give. His portrait of her, then, demonstrates no complicity, erotic or otherwise, between artist and model; it’s as if their passion, which in fact had been one-way, is now safely off the boil. While some see disdain in the painter’s depiction, I, for my part, see a ‘distanced intimacy’ and indeed a certain affection. Just as for The Marchesa Casati, I consider Lady Ottoline Morrell a very fine portrait, in large part because of the way it individualizes the subject (art individualizes; if it’s generic, it’s not art). Note, in passing, what every woman knows: the power of eyeliner (kohl) to make the eyes mesmerizing. Luisa applied kohl in abundance (and also used belladonna to enlarge her pupils), while Ottoline’s eyes are bare. This little detail contributes in no small measure to the differential impact of the two portraits.

Augustus John, Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1919

Thomas Hardy said of Augustus John’s portrait of him, ‘I don’t know whether that is how I look or not, but that is how I feel.’* To capture the sitter’s interiority, to evoke the tenor of their thoughts and the drift of their feelings, typically makes for a good portrait. For having accomplished that, we may consider John’s painting a fine achievement. At first, I must say, I found it not nearly as interesting as either the Casati portrait or the Morrell. Why? Perhaps because it seemed weighted towards the memento function of portraiture: to serve as a memorial to, or evocation of, a person who has died. Hardy’s novels are full of vigour, and vigour, I found, is precisely what the portrait lacked. It would seem I wanted a ‘vigorous’ portrait of a man without vigour.


* Michael Holroyd, Augustus John: The New Biography (London: Head of Zeus, 2015)

Augustus John, Thomas Hardy, 1923

John’s portraits of the myopic Yeats, the ironic Villiers David, and the pensive Joseph Hone all demonstrate distinctive character and have an intriguing appeal. Having looked at them, I went back to the Hardy and found myself appreciating it more. Yes, after my cool initial response, I now found something touching in it. That look into an undefined distance—the foreign country of his past?—was now intriguing. Is he stoical about his death to come, or about the past that cannot be undone? Is his quiet dignity boredom in disguise, or recollection of a woman not won? In raising such questions in my mind, in stirring the feelings stirred, the portrait won me over to a more generous opinion of it. Nevertheless, because the Casati portrait bears witness to a relationship between artist and model, and because the Morrell one evokes the embers of a passion extinguished, I find them both (much) superior to the Hardy portrait. Why? Because in contrast to the Casati and the Morrell, in the Hardy we only get a sense of the artist studying his model, not relating to him (her). Indeed, I find the portrait lacks tension, which, paradoxically, may be due to the fact that, as John wrote in his autobiography, ‘an atmosphere of great sympathy and almost complete understanding at once established itself between us’, and, as Michael Holroyd adds, ‘they did not talk much, but John felt they were of a kind’*. It would seem, then that an undertow of tension between artist and model makes for a better portrait. Now, as announced, we must move on and try to enrich the discussion of The Marchesa Casati by comparing and contrasting it with John Singer Sargent’s Madame X.


* Michael Holroyd, Augustus John: The New Biography (London: Head of Zeus, 2015)

Augustus John: Villiers David, 1932 | Joseph Hone, 1932 | W.B. Yeats, 1907

Studying Madame X, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Amélie Gautreau, will enable us to demonstrate a set of dynamics between artist and model very different from the dynamics we saw at work in The Marchesa Casati. Nevertheless, these dynamics—by analogy, as it were—reinforce, I believe, my analysis of Augustus’ portrait of Luisa. Here’s my argument: Sargent’s portrait of Amélie is excellent in that it offers at once a faithful rendition of the model’s self-display and the artist’s interpretation of it. Sargent, I suggest, saw Amélie as a ‘cock teaser’—seemingly sexually available yet standing proud and aloof, offering her tits but withholding her lips (an impression reinforced in the original version of the painting, which showed the right strap of Amélie’s dress fallen off her shoulder)—and perhaps, if Sargent was indeed homosexual (as Paul Fisher argues in his biography of the painter*), then he may, unconsciously of course, have used Amélie as a vector for expressing his forbidden desire: ‘there’ (tits) but ‘not there’ (lips).


* Paul Fisher, The Grand Affair:  John Singer Sargent in His World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022)

John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1884

We recall that it was Sargent who vigorously pursued Amélie in a bid to paint her*: he was attracted to her, as many homosexuals are attracted to a form of arch-femininity, well before he got her into his studio. In this reading, Sargent’s portrait of Amélie is brilliant, because it makes the invisible (Sargent’s ‘use’ of Amélie in his own erotic scenario) visible, and in so doing, offers us a richer experience of the painting. I would not, however, elevate it to the level of Augustus’ portrait of Luisa. Why? First, because in The Marchesa Casati we are witness to a reciprocal relation (Luisa’s gift of her vulnerability to Augustus, Augustus’ gift to Luisa of his receptivity), while in Mme X the relation is strictly one-way in each direction (Amélie displays her beauty to Sargent; Sargent uses Amélie in his erotic scenario). To express the contrast in terms of the philosophy of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas drawn on earlier, where in Augustus-Luisa the relation is ‘I-Thou’, in Sargent-Amélie it is ‘I-It’. A reciprocal relation, I maintain, is inherently more interesting than a one-way one. Second, I find The Marchesa Casati superior to Madame X because Augustus took on the challenge of painting the face—the ‘nakedness beneath the adopted countenance’ (Levinas)—and painted it in a way that, as I’ve tried to demonstrate, endows the portrait with a supreme grace. In our increasingly robotized and zombified world, the human face in all its vulnerability will remain a refuge for all who seek a caring relation, and as long as this remains true, The Marchesa Casati will, like the Mona Lisa, endure.


* Deborah Davis, Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X (Tarcher-Perigee/Penguin Random House, 2004)

John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1884 (detail)


A literary novel by Richard Jonathan

Richard Jonathan, Mara, Marietta: A Love Story in 77 Bedrooms – Read the first chapter


Richard Jonathan, Mara, Marietta: A Love Story in 77 Bedrooms | Amazon paperback or Kindle

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From Michael Holroyd, Augustus John: The New Biography (London: Head of Zeus, 2015 [original revised & updated edition: 1997])

It was the Marchesa Casati, of the archaic smile and macabre beauty, who beckoned Augustus John into international high society. As Luisa Ammon, daughter of a Milanese industrialist, she had been, it was said, a mousy little girl. But, inspired by the example of Sarah Bernhardt, she decided to turn herself into a theatrical work of art and her world into a stage. As the young wife of Camillo Casati Stampa di Soncino, noblest of Roman huntsmen, she pounced like a panther on to life: and somewhat overshot it. The mousy hair burst into henna’d flames; the grey-green eyes, now ringed with black kohl and treated with toxic belladonna, expanded enormously, fringed with amazing false eyelashes like peacock’s feathers. Her lips were vermilion, her feet empurpled, her sphinx-like face, transformed by some black-and-white alchemy, became a painted mask. By taking thought she added a cubit to her stature, raising her legs on altitudinous heels, and crowning her head with top hats of tiger skin and black satin, huge gold waste-paper baskets turned upside down, or the odd inverted flowerpot from which gesticulated a salmon-pink feather. It was for her that Léon Bakst, soaring to his most extravagant fantasies, designed incroyable Persian trousers of the most savage cut; for her Mariano Fortuny invented long scarves of oriental gauze, soaked in the mysterious pigments of his vats and ‘tinted with strange dreams’.

Leon Bakst, Danse indo-persane – Marquise Casati, 1912

She lived, this decadent queen of Venice, in the roofless ‘Palazzo Non Finito’, on the Grand Canal where Bakst choreographed her bals masqués. She would appear with a macaw on her shoulder, an ape at one arm, or a few cobras. As a backdrop she redesigned her ballroom with caged monkeys which gibbered among the branches of lilac as she floated past, pursued by a restive ocelot held on its leash by a black keeper, his hand dripping with paint. But there were failures. The ‘slaves’, painted with gold, collapsed; her costume – an affair of armour pierced with a hundred electric arrows – short-circuited.

Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910 (modified) | The Marchesa Casati, costume by Worth, 1922

By the spring of 1919 she had left Venice and her husband, achieved poetic status as mistress of the symbolist ‘Prince of Decadence’ Gabriele d’Annunzio and, having exhausted one huge fortune, was preparing to demolish a second.

‘Museum Secret’ d’Annunzio, Giovanni Vanoglio, 2012

Casati’s witch-like aspect often provoked terror. But John, unlike most of her admirers, was a romantic only by instalments. Visually she stimulated him, but in other ways she made him ‘laugh immoderately’. Where T. E. Lawrence beheld a ‘vampire’, John saw only ‘a spoilt child of a woman’ ringed about with the credulity and suspiciousness of a savage. Yet, as the vigour of his two portraits shows, he found her dramatically exciting.

Augustus John, The Marchesa Casati, 1919

She had been painted by innumerable artists as Joan of Arc, Pulcinella, Salome, the naked Eve. To Marinetti and the Futurists, she was their Gioconda; to Boldini, who portrayed her smothered in peacock feathers and arched over cushions like a pretend-panther, she was Scheherazade; to Alberto Martini, she became an art-nouveau Medusa.

Giovanni Boldini, The Marchesa Casati with Peacock Feathers, 1911

But to John, who painted her twice in April 1919 in the Duchess of Gramont’s apartment on the quai Malaquais, she was something else again: a pyjama’d figure, with dramatic mascara, poised with a provocative elbow before a veiled view of Vesuvius where, as the unbidden guest of Axel Munthe, she overstayed her welcome by some fifteen years. Romanticism and irony were perfectly blended to produce what Lord Duveen was to call ‘an outstanding masterpiece of our time’.

Augustus John, The Marchesa Casati, 1919

‘He painted like a lion,’ sighed Casati. ‘Le taxi vous attend,’ he writes to her from Paris. ‘Venez!’ They flung themselves towards each other. Sex was not the real attraction between them. Casati took other people’s admiration for granted, like a perpetual chorus singing invisibly while she stood on stage alone. For she was intensely narcissistic. John responded to her exhibitionism. It was her sheer extraordinariness he loved – she was more tempestuous and terrifying than Ottoline had ever been. Though Marinetti dedicated his Futurist Dance Manifesto to her in 1917, she lived always for the present, converting everything she touched into make-believe, using all her camp artillery to keep reality in retreat. John relished her gypsy-like fervor and, under the brazen theatricality, what he judged to be her ‘perfect naturalness of manner’.

Federico Beltran Masses Casati, 1920 | William Orpen, Augustus John, 1900 (flipped)

She wanted for nothing until the 1930s when the last penny of the last fortune had been squandered and the curtain came down on her performance. She fled from her Palais Rose at Neuilly to England. In England there was charity, a pale but persistent kindness, first from Lord Alington, then, for the last dozen years of her life, from a Wodehousian platoon of old fellows – the Duke of Westminster, Baron Paget-Fredericks, Lord Tredegar and, most constantly, John himself with whom she stayed for a time in Chelsea. ‘Je serai ravi de vous revoir, carissima,’ he gallantly welcomed her, enclosing ‘un petit cadeau’. He warned her that ‘Londres n’est pas gai en ce moment’, but she knew there was nowhere else she could shelter. She lived in a small dirty flat within, however, a house that had once been Byron’s. The layers of powder grew thicker; the stories of Italy longer; her clothes more faded and frayed; her leopard-skin gloves spotted with holes; her thin figure, subsisting on opium and cocaine, turned into an assemblage of bones. But she had never valued comfort and did not miss it now. Despite the squalor, she played, to the last notes, this ghostly echo of the d’Annunzian heroine. ‘Bring in the drinks!’ she would call, and a bent Italian servant would shuffle forward with a half-empty bottle of beer. What money came in she tended to spend at once, shopping in Knightsbridge and Mayfair for Spider, her Pekinese.

Carl L.T. Reitlinger, Casati, 1942 | Pekinese | Augustus John, 1922

Her one asset was absolute helplessness, which threw responsibility for her survival on to everyone else. Her friends paid an allowance each week into her bank from where she would collect it by taxi. The bank statements show that, for over a decade, John was her most persistent source of income. She did not need very often to beg from him: he gave spontaneously, regularly, small sums with a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God generosity. ‘Ayez courage, carissima, et croyez à mon amitié sincère.’ It did not occur to her to do otherwise. ‘Je suis bien triste que vous êtes toujours dans les difficultés,’ he wrote again, with more apprehension. But when, during the early 1940s, she asked for more money to remove these difficulties, he fell back into explanations: ‘Le gouvernement prend tout mon argent pour ce guerre et j’ai des grandes dépenses comme vous savez.’ The aphrodisiac notes now gave way before a crisp commercial correspondence – ‘Voici le chèque’. But she did not embarrass him with gratitude and they remained friends until her death in 1957. His last portrait, painted in 1942, shows her wearing a half-veil, the elaborate golden fichu gathered at her chest matching the eyes of the staring black cat on her lap. She is seated in an upright chair against a theatrically stormy sky – a sad, sinister, witch-like figure still held together with some vestiges of dignity.

After Augustus John, The Marchesa Casati, 1942

Casati occupied a unique place in the latter part of John’s life. She should, he once suggested to Cecil Beaton, have been shot and, like Spider, stuffed – she would have looked so well in a glass case. The other women in his life were for more active employment and, from the 1920s onwards, began to arrange themselves into a pattern. There were the occasional models; there was the chief mistress who looked after him in town and abroad when Dorelia was absent; and there was the Grand Lady, to be defined neither as model nor mistress, who conducted his life in society.

Yousuf Karsh, Augustus John, 1954 | Adolf de Meyer, Luisa Casati, 1912 | G. C. Beresford, Augustus John, 1902


If Federico Fellini had made a film about the Marchesa Casati, aesthetically and philosophically it would have been, I’d be willing to bet, a companion piece to Fellini’s Casanova. In that film (which, incidentally, I believe to be one of the finest films ever made), he portrays Casanova as a ‘portrait of nothingness’.* Indeed, the film conveys his contempt for the character, considering him to be ‘nothingness, universality without meaning, a complete lack of individuality, the indeterminate’*. That Casanova (1725-1798) was precisely the opposite of how Fellini portrays him** is, ultimately, irrelevant: Fellini is an auteur, not a documentarian (as the title of the film tells us: ‘Fellini’s Casanova’). This is how Fellini articulated his point of view for the film: ‘A film on nothingness, a mortuary-like film, rendered without emotion; non-life with its empty forms which are composed and decomposed, the charm of an aquarium, an absentmindedness of sea-like profundity, where everything is completely hidden and unknown because there is no human penetration or intimacy.’* This description precisely fits the impression one may be left with upon finishing a biography of Luisa Casati. Indeed, her narcissism was pitched at such a high degree that one can’t help but imagine the sterility she must have radiated when all the glitter was gone. In her succession of ‘all tomorrow’s parties’, one finds the same ‘charm of an aquarium’ (ever tried developing a relationship with a fish?), the same lack of ‘human penetration or intimacy’.


* Peter Bondanella, The Cinema of Federico Fellini (Princeton University Press, 1992) 308
** See, for example, Lydia Flem, Casanova, or the Art of Happiness, tr. Catherine Timerson (Allen Lane-Penguin Press, 1998). And in French: Philippe Sollers, Casanova l’admirable (Gallimard-Folio, 2007); Chantal Thomas, Casanova: Un voyage libertin (Gallimard-Folio, 1999).

Margareth Clementi & Donald Sutherland, Fellini’s Casanova, 1977

Fellini’s Casanova is a ‘dark, pessimistic, and even morbid analysis of male sexuality’.* In the film, Casanova’s lovemaking is portrayed as mechanical, driven by ‘a frantic and ultimately insatiable compulsion to perform the sexual act over and over again’*. We do, however, have an alternative to Fellini’s vision of the man: Casanova’s Mémoires (all 2,000 pages of it), along with the recollections of his contemporaries and the reconstructions of historians. They provide us with a much richer portrait of the man than Fellini does. Of Luisa Casati’s thoughts and feelings, in contrast, we know next to nothing. That, of course, does not mean she had no ‘inner life’ (see note below). Nevertheless, based on the facts we do know, I suggest that Luisa’s obsession with ‘all tomorrow’s parties’ parallels Casanova’s ‘addiction’ to ‘all tomorrow’s women’. (Keep in mind that I am referring here only to Fellini’s interpretation of Casanova). The exotic animals and gold-painted ‘slaves’ that constituted the décor of Luisa’s parties, her relentless pursuit of the ‘outrageous’, her succession of ever-more extravagant costumes, are all analogous, I maintain, with the compulsive and mechanical quality of Casanova’s lovemaking. That being the case, Fellini, I believe, would have described his vision for a Marchesa Casati film in exactly the same terms he used for his Casanova film. I repeat the Fellini quote given earlier: ‘A film on nothingness, a mortuary-like film, rendered without emotion; non-life with its empty forms which are composed and decomposed, the charm of an aquarium, an absentmindedness of sea-like profundity, where everything is completely hidden and unknown because there is no human penetration or intimacy.’***

Gabriele D’Annuzio and Augustus John were two of the men (the Marchesa had no women friends) who, in the context of their respective relationships with Luisa, had a measure of access to her inner life (and not only through their respective erotic relationships with her). Some of John’s reflections on the Marchesa are quoted in the preceding section (Part 3); as for D’Annunzio’s, I  have not read what he wrote of their affair in his Livre secret, but I can offer a quote from someone who has: ‘In the Libro  segreto D’Annunzio describes, in seven pages of dense French, his affair with La Casati Stampa. The events described there are among the most sensual in the Libro Segreto, and give a strange impression of the relationship which was to continue sporadically for another decade or more between Florence, Paris, and Venice.’ [Source: John Robert Woodhouse, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Defiant Archangel (Oxford University Press, 2001) 237]


* Peter Bondanella, The Cinema of Federico Fellini (Princeton University Press, 1992) *307, ** 312, *** 308

Donald Sutherland& Mario Gagliardo, Fellini’s Casanova, 1977

Lucio Ridente, in his book La belle époque (Rome, 1966),* writes: ‘Another bizarre part of the Marchesa’s furnishings was a wax statue, life-size, which she would dress in her own clothes and put to sit at table with her guests.’ Fellini would have had a field day with this detail, just as he did when he had Casanova make love with a mechanical doll. The doll, ironically, provides one of the most tender scenes in the film, when the lovers dance on the frozen lagoon of Venice. So, just as Fellini brought out the ridiculous in Casanova, so would he have done for Luisa. Indeed, how mocking would have been his scene, for example, at a fancy-dress ball where Luisa appears as an armoured Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows ‘capable of being lit electrically at the required time’. When the switch is flipped, however, ‘with a blinding flash, the entire contraption suffers a massive short circuit, sending the screaming Marchesa into the neatest backward somersault ever executed outside a circus arena’** And then there’s the ridicule Fellini would have heaped on Luisa when her party guests twitch their noses at the stink of her menagerie emitting its natural odours while she delicately twiddles a sprig of jasmine beneath her nostrils. While it’s true that in the lives of both Casanova and Luisa occasions for derision abounded, only a fool would reduce their lives to a series of derisive incidents. Remember, for Casanova we have his Mémoires and a rich historical record to show us the plenitude of the life, whereas for Luisa, while we have anecdote and incident in abundance, we know nothing of her subjective experience. So, while we must remain modest, Fellini, in regard to the Marchesa, would get away with murder: murder he can’t get away with in the case of Casanova.


* Quoted in John Robert Woodhouse, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Defiant Archangel (Oxford University Press, 2001) 237
** Scott D. Ryersson & Michael Orlando Yaccarino, Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati: The Ultimate Edition (University of Minnesota Press, 2004) 158

Donald Sutherland & Adele Angela Lojodice, Fellini’s Casanova, 1977

Now, to close out this section, a final parallel between the two itineraries: both Casanova and Luisa ended their lives in hardship. He lived out the end of his life in Bohemia, where he served as the librarian to the castle of Dux*. Fellini portrays him as a ludicrous figure, railing against being lumped together with the menials (in reality, his learning was prodigious). Luisa, for her part, lived out her last years in England, where, as we learned in the previous section (Part 3), she was impoverished but found charity and ‘a pale but persistent kindness’. One would be forgiven for assuming these two people were protagonists in a morality play, but the fact is, both Casanova and Casati maintained their defiant dignity to the end. Each, in their own way, was faithful to him/herself; each, in their own way, realized (or at least expressed) their individuality. Against the crowd, they asserted their singularity; against the straitjacket of conformity, they affirmed their personality. In this, I contend, they lived exemplary lives.


* Peter Bondanella, The Cinema of Federico Fellini (Princeton University Press, 1992) 313

Donald Sutherland, Fellini’s Casanova, 1977


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Early in his artistic career, Augustus John (1878-1961) was recognized as a superb draughtsman. John Singer Sargent, for example, declared that ‘Augustus’s drawings were beyond anything that had been done since the Italian Renaissance’*. As a painter, however, the consensus has been that John never really fulfilled his potential, that his career was erratic, lacking in vision and drive, and that the few great paintings that punctuate it are overshadowed by the many more that, while often good and sometimes even very good, are never really compelling. I concede there’s some truth in that, but in no way can I accept that that justifies the neglect John has been subjected to, let alone his relegation to the margins of art history. Why did this relegation occur? Robert Hughes, in his 1987 review of the exhibition ‘British Art in the 20th Century’ (Royal Academy, London), while not once mentioning Augustus John, nevertheless provides an answer. He points out that the influential Bloomsbury critics, Roger Fry and Clive Bell, ‘made it just fine to despise new English art in the name of the French avant-garde. With their belief in an imperial France whose seigneurs were Cézanne, Matisse and Gaugin, Fry and Bell preferred any imitation of the École de Paris, however pallid, to anything else, however strong.’** British art, then, first in relation to the ‘French avant garde’ and then in relation to American Abstract Expressionism, was considered ‘provincial’, no matter how great its intrinsic merits. Snobbishness, indeed, can do a lot of damage. For any viewer with an artistic sensibility and a pair of educated but uncorrupted eyes, John’s paintings have much to offer. Take a look at the six below, all painted between 1905 and 1914, when the artist was between 27 and 36.


* Quoted in Michael Holroyd, Augustus John: The New Biography (London: Head of Zeus, 2015)
** Robert Hughes, ‘English Art in the Twentieth Century’, in Nothing If Not Critical (Knopf Doubleday, 1990)

Augustus John, The Blue Pool, 1911

Augustus John, Lily at Tan-y-grisiau (The Orange Apron), 1913

Augustus John
Dorelia Standing before a Fence, 1905

Augustus John, Caravan: A Gypsy Encampment, 1905

Augustus John, A Family Group, 1908-09

Augustus John, Lyric Fantasy, 1913-14 (Unfinished mural for the Chelsea House of Hugh Lane)

These paintings are in no way ‘provincial’; they radiate the energy of an artist pursuing a variety of formal challenges while aiming to please no-one but himself. What strikes one now as ‘provincial’ are precisely the paintings lauded by the critics at the time: ‘the weak pastiches of Matisse by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and other Bloomsbury-approved painters’*. One reason why I find these paintings admirable, then, is precisely because they lack an ‘agenda’: John belonged to no artistic ‘school’ and refused to join any movement. After WWI he turned increasingly to portrait painting, and like John Singer Sargent before him, he rebelled against it but had a hard time leaving it. If his work, as a whole, lacks an instantly recognizable signature style, if it is not as innovative and impactful as that of other twentieth-century figurative painters—Modigliani, Schiele, Picasso; Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and the partly-figurative Nicolas de Staël—it nevertheless merits being curated and exhibited, analyzed in monographs and reproduced in catalogues. Any critic-curators out there who consider it propitious to get the ball rolling? It’s been stationary for ages. Indeed, the ‘vital’ paintings (the baby) have been thrown out with the ‘illustrative’ ones (the bathwater). A rescue operation needs to be mounted.


* Robert Hughes, ‘English Art in the Twentieth Century’, in Nothing If Not Critical (Knopf Doubleday, 1990)

Augustus John, Landscape at Chirk, Clwyd, 1912

Finally, I offer a few brief reflections on Augustus John, the man. He reminds me of Henry Miller in his appetite for life, his unsparing lucidity, the capaciousness of his curiosity and, of course, his love for women and defiance of convention. I also like him for his refusal to suffer fools, his intimacy with the gypsy way of life, and his work ethic. If he had a flaw that kept him from fully realizing his artistic potential, that flaw was probably the product of what was wholesome in him. Indeed, he wasn’t sufficiently maudit to tip into obsessiveness, the kind of obsessiveness that gives one staying power and the ability to forge ahead until breakthroughs are achieved, no matter what the cost to oneself. In the great paintings he did paint—and foremost among them the second Marchesa Casati of 1919—I see a free spirit fully engaged with both his art and, in the case of the finest portraits, another person. In short, it’s for the way he lived his individuality and made freedom his touchstone that I like and admire the man.

Augustus John, Self-Portrait, 1940



Edouard Manet

Gustave Moreau

John Everett Millais

Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Gustave Courbet

François Boucher

Paul Klee

Pablo Picasso

Henri Rousseau

Tamara de Lempicka

Nicolas de Staël

Egon Schiele

Hans Holbein, Younger

Vincent Van Gogh

Hieronymus Bosch

Caspar David Friedrich

Leda and the Swan

Andy Warhol

Remedios Varo

Salvador Dali

Claude Monet

William Morris

Paul Delvaux

Frida Kahlo

Dorothea Tanning

Leonor Fini

By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2022 | All rights reserved